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Russia and Israel -- Beginning of a Great Friendship

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Few days ago, UNESCO was about to vote in favor of the latest ritualistic anti-Israel resolution, this time presented by the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan over the situation of the Holy places in Jerusalem. The Israelis braced themselves for the inevitable automatic majority against them -- but not this time. It was Russia, of all member states, which pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for Israel. The Russian Ambassador intervened, and the vote was delayed, at least for half a year, clearly with a view to quietly remove this artificial issue from the agenda of UNESCO. The Israelis, of course, expressed their gratitude, and this is just the latest example of the ever- improving relations between the two countries, which until the dissolution of the Soviet Union were at constant odds.

It was not always so, as the Soviets supported the UN Partition Plan in November 1947, and moved later to recognize the newly-established State of Israel, and also to supply it with much-needed arms in its war of independence, given by their then satellite state of Czechoslovakia. But then, the Soviets changed horses, adopted the rising tide of radical Arab nationalism, led by Nasser of Egypt, and became Israel's worst enemy in the international arena. What helped them pursue this policy was also the fateful decision taken by Israel's first PM David Ben-Gurion to side with the US in the Korean war, much to the chagrin of a lot of left-wing Israelis, who considered themselves part of the international Socialist camp. That was then, but it all changed after 1990, and diplomatic relations first, and later thriving commercial relations, were established between the two countries, and in the background was the exodus of previously oppressed Soviet Jews to Israel, something which has had a profound impact on every facet of life in Israel, including its domestic politics.

Former Soviet Jews constitute almost 20% of the voting population in Israel, and the vast majority of them seem to be firmly in the column of the nationalist right-wing in Israel. It was former President Bill Clinton who caused ripples in Israel when he stated that the influence of these people is becoming an obstacle to a compromise solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, as they tend to strongly object to such a solution. It was an exaggerated observation on the part of the former president, but not totally baseless. Nor is it baseless to argue that these people can be, and probably already are, a factor in the growing friendship between Israel and Russia. President Vladimir Putin picked Israel for its first international visit after his recent election. What seemed to be a diplomatic fantasy years ago seemed almost natural in May of this year, as the Russian leader inaugurated a stature commemorating the fallen Soviet soldiers in the "Great War" against Nazi Germany, many of whom were Jews.

During the visit, Putin had a long session with PM Netanyahu, the contents of which remained unknown, but not for too long. It has been published that the Russian natural gas, state-run monopoly Gazprom, which is the world's biggest natural gas exploration and production company, is very keen on investing a substantial amount in some of the newly-discovered natural gas resources off the shores of Israel. While the Netanyahu government is not in a position to decide all by itself whether to admit Gazprom as a senior partner in the new project, it sure does wield enough influence to enable the Russians to be involved. It is this possible partnership which arouses a lot of interest in the Middle East and could become the linchpin of a new strategic realignment in the Mediterranean. The Israeli plan is to incorporate Cyprus in the production of the gas and oil and the two countries have vastly improved their relations, even though the President of Cyprus is a member of the Communist Akel Party.

There is possible profit to share in the background, but also a joint adversary, and this is Turkey under PM Erdogan and the AKP party, which have targeted Israel, since the tragic Mavi Marmara incident, as a rival country, and whose relations with Cyprus have been adversarial since the illegal Turkish creation of the Republic on Northern Cyprus in 1974. But then there is also the big shadow of Russia in the background. The Russians make it abundantly clear that they will not tolerate Turkish attempts to torpedo a joint Cypriot-Israeli project, as well as expressing growing impatience with other aspects of Turkish policy, not least the interception of planes flying from Russia to Syria.

While Russia and Turkey agreed in December 2011 to grant Gazprom permission to construct the South Stream pipeline project in the Turkish waters of the Black Sea, it is well-known that the Russians do not want to be too dependent on Turkey in terms of being able to export their gas and oil, so the option of taking part in the Israeli and Cypriot projects is highly appealing to them. It can and may very well prove also highly appealing to Israel, and could become the anchor of new, strategic relations between the two countries. Yes, Iran may prove a major stumbling block, and Russian objections to stricter sanctions against Iran are not popular in Israel, to put it mildly; but the Russians are not in support of Iran developing nuclear weapons, and they are very sensitive about fundamentalist Islamic influences over their own Muslim population.

It is clear therefore that Israel and Russia may have enough in common to further develop their relations and create a stable friendship based on a variety of interests.